A review I wrote in 2015 about my 2014 experience conducting research in a Uyghur music collection at an archive in Stockholm, Sweden has just gone live on Dissertation Reviews as part of their “Fresh From the Archives” and “Performance Studies” series. Please give the review a read and consider arranging research with the collection if you’re interested in Uyghur music and/or diaspora groups.
In the first episode of Season 1 of the Voice of the Silk Road there is a brief and poignant exchange (starting around 1:22:48) between contestant Subhinur Hékim and coach Nurnisa Abbas.* Subhinur has told the three male judges that she loves their music but does not want to be on their teams in the televised singing competition, and then comes to Nurnisa, the one female judge on the first season, and hints that she wants to be in her group for the fact that Nurnisa is a woman and she, a girl. And then she asks a question: why has Nurnisa only ever released only one album, when Subhinur was young, and then none after that? Nurnisa fumbles a bit, admitting that this wasn’t a question she expected to be asked, and she begins to suggest that to be a woman—ayal digen uqum, she says several times over, or “the concept of ‘woman'”—brings with it a special set of expectations that make a career as a singer hard. It’s not easy to put out an album every few years like it is for aman, she says. To be a woman is difficult.
The exchange is not all that eloquent, and Nurnisa ends it with a slightly over-the-top gesture, standing up and thanking all the hard-working women singers she knows and has worked with throughout her career. There were so many more things she could have said but didn’t—perhaps because they didn’t come to mind, or because there was no time for them, or because she felt they wouldn’t be appropriate to talk about onstage. But what Nurnisa didn’t explictly say seems fairly evident: to be a woman is difficult, and to be simultaneously a good woman and a successful, prolific singer is even moreso.** Remember: It’s not easy to put out an album every few years like it is for aman. To be a woman is difficult.
In my March 8 post, I hinted at the idea that Uyghur musicians—and men in general—are often able to lead public lives and have very successful, visible careers in ways that women are not. Much of this has to do, I think, with a broad and sweeping set of social expectations that spells out very specific, gendered roles for Uyghur men and women, encapsulated in a notion that the work of men is “outside,” while the work of women is “inside,” or in the home. Marriage, preferably early, is important; to look after a husband is paramount; having kids, or “leaving descendants,” is prized; and the domestic work of keeping house, on the “inside,” is a woman’s job. This is what it means to be a good woman.
How do women figure out being all of that and a successful singer? Some women singers—including a couple on this list—have skirted the issue completely by foregoing marriage, almost unheard of in this society, in order to pursue their careers. Some have not yet married, either because they’re too young (as is clearly Berna’s case) or because they want to delay it, but most likely will someday. Others have already married and had children, disappearing from the stage for years at a time. Some of them deal with abusive husbands who strike and belittle them. And they continue to make great music, forging their way through life as both women and singers.
Izzet Ilyas ئىززەت ئىلياس
Izzet Ilyas is an Ürümchi native and actress in the Xinjiang Opera Troupe. She graduated from the acting major at the Central Theatre Conservatory in Beijing in the 1980s and has performed in Japan, Taiwan, and the former Soviet Union. She gained a following as a singer in the 1990s and still appears onstage today, including in the championship round of Season 1 of the Voice of the Silk Road.
Here’s a recent recording of her “Quyash Qizi” (Daughter of the sun):
And a much older recording, recognizable as such by the accompaniment track, of “Urghusun Naxsham” (May my song spring out):
Nurnisa Abbas نۇرنىسا ئابباس
Nurnisa Abbas, a graduate of the opera major at the Xinjiang Arts Institute, is a singer in the Ürümchi-based Circus Troupe. She has long been performing pop music on Xinjiang stages and was thrust into a major spotlight when she served as a coach on the first season of the Voice of the Silk Road in 2014–15. Nurnisa is once again a coach on Season 2 of the show.
Here is “Nepret” (Scorn), the lyrics of which are from a poem by Chimen’gül Awut, a brilliant and highly revered poet who also happens to be a woman:
And a link to a collection of videos a YouTube user created, starting from some of Nurnisa’s much older songs, immediately identifiable as such by the midi backing:
Pasha Ishan پاشا ئىشان
Ghulja native Pasha Ishan was, remarkably, given a position in the Ghulja City Arts Troupe in 1952, when she was just 12 years old. She is one of the most beloved and respected singers of the folk repertoire among Uyghurs. In her long career she has performed all over China and the world, earning herself the nickname “Tengritagh Bulbuli” (Nightingale of the Tengritagh, or Tianshan).
Here is a performance of “Ana Méhri” (A mother’s love):
“Tagh Suliri” (Mountain waters):
Peride Mamut پەرىدە مامۇت
Peride Mamut, native of Kashgar, trained for an advanced degree in vocal studies at the Shanghai Conservatory. She shines the most, in my opinion, when she sings and plays the dutar, the two-stringed lute that she learned to play from one of her older brothers. She tends to play medleys of shox (playful) songs from the Kashgar repertoire and has a distinctive style that includes using the dutar as a percussion instrument. Her music videos provide a glimpse into the heavily gendered social worlds of Uyghur adults.
Here she is playing and singing a medley that begins with “Oynay Dep Keldim” (I came to play) and moves to a song known sometimes as “Ayropilanlar Kéliwatidu” (The airplanes are coming):
Below is another medley of folksongs, which the uploader has simply titled “Essalam” (the first part of the Arabic greeting meaning “peace be upon you”) but is actually a collection of three songs, “Essalam,” “Könglüm Xush” (My soul is happy), and “Oynasun” (Let them play):
Senuber Tursun سەنۇبەر تۇرسۇن
Senuber Tursun is one of the most famous, world-renowned of all Uyghur singers, male and female alike, largely thanks to her collaboration with the Aga Khan Foundation Music Initiative. A native of Ghulja, she is one of many children from her family who grew up to become professional musicians (here she is playing with her older brother, the late tembur master Nurmuhemmet Tursun). Senuber does it all, writing her own songs and performing from the classical and folk repertoires on dutar and voice. For the past few years she has been studying for an advanced degree in composition at the Shanghai Conservatory.
Here is her “Köngülgä Nesihet” (Advice for the soul), which includes the always-haunting line “Belkim tashlar bir küni / sen yaqturghan kishiler séni” (They might someday abandon you / the people whom you love):
Here are selections from the Chebbiyatmuqam suite, but with different lyrics than that which is sung by the muqam ensemble and taught at institutes such as the Xinjiang Arts Institute (and thus different from what Ayshigül Muhemmed performed in the video from Part 1 of this post):
And for good measure, here’s a third video showcasing her dutar playing in collaboration with pipa player Wu Man at a 2015 concert in Brussels. The piece starts with the muqeddime (introduction) to Chebbiyat and also includes a lovely song from the Ghulja folk repertoire, with that distinctive Ili style, around 20:50:
Zulpiye Kurash زۇلپىيە كۈرەش
Zulpiye, an up-and-coming singer who hails from Khotän and now lives in Ürümchi, is probably the least known of the singers on this list. Her appearance at this year’s Qurban Héyt Sen’et Kéchiliki (a holiday gala in celebration of Eid al-Adha) gave her some exposure that is boosting her performance career. She performs regularly at restaurants and night clubs around Ürümchi with her husband, Alim Abdulla, whose A Studios does the arranging and audio-video production for a number of performers.
Here’s “Texi” (And still . . .), my favorite of Zulpiye’s songs; there’s a pleasant easy-ness and lightness to the way she sings:
“Qizghinmen” (I am passionate), a Uyghur-language version of an Uzbek folksong, which Zulpiye performed at a concert at Saba, the educational center run by pop singer Möminjan Ablikim:
*A note on transliteration: I have transliterated personal names and words from Uyghur using the system outlined in ULY (Uyghur Latin Yéziqi, or Uyghur Latin Script). There is a remarkable inconsistency in the transliteration of Uyghur into Latin script, and so be aware that there are many possible spellings of all these names and words.
**Another issue I’m exploring in research and hope to write about someday is the different place that Uyghur women singers and musicians occupy in repertoires. While they often sing about the same kinds of topics as men—love, mother, father, and so forth—the songs they sing often lack the emotional and climactic high points that are so important to much of Uyghur music. Emotional restraint is especially important for the woman singer, who is also discouraged from using too much vibrato because it “doesn’t suit” the female voice. There are also entire classes of instruments that women are told they cannot learn to play because they’re “too male” or require “too much strength” (meanwhile, no one talks about any instruments that men aren’t allowed to play).
For the past few days, Uyghur-language WeChat (Ündidar) has been bustling with messages from friends wishing one another a happy International Women’s Day (in Uyghur, Xanim-Qizlar Bayrimi; in Chinese, 国际妇女节 or 三八节).* People have been celebrating the day by exchanging money—combinations of 3s and 8s are most popular—in virtual “red envelopes.” Women are being told, by both men and one another, that they make the world “beautiful” (güzäl) and complete (pütün). Poems such as linguist-poet Mahire Haji’ekber’s “Men Uyghur Ayal” (I am a Uyghur woman), which celebrates the distinctiveness of being both female and Uyghur partly through an invocation of the scent of food, have gone viral, making the rounds in group chats and on individual WeChat “circles” (walls). Real life, too, has been full of holiday greetings.
This is the fourth Women’s Day I’ve spent in Ürümchi, where I’ve found the day tends to be celebrated not unlike Valentine’s Day: flower vendors set up on street corners to sell at slightly inflated rates, and restaurants fill up, sometimes with families but mostly with groups of women celebrating their day together over sometimes extravagant banquet feasts. Gift-giving in general is popular, as is that peculiar practice of sharing online the photos of the gifts one receives. But as internationalwomensday.com reminds us, this day is much more than a chance to eat out, exchange gifts, and send holiday greetings. Gender disparity and violence against women remain grave problems worldwide, and this day is about bringing those issues to the forefront of public consciousness while also fighting to resolve them.
Over the past few years, many Uyghur women have confided in me about the ways that gender disparity play out in this society, where women are by default ajiz (weak), where they are expected to bare the brunt of domestic work even in cases when both spouses work outside the home, and where domestic abuse remains rampant, as many men (and women) believe it is perfectly fine to strike a woman as a form of discipline. Their world is in many ways a man’s world, marked by male privilege and deeply engrained forms of inequality.
Women have long been making waves in Uyghur society, though. Uyghur women are studying for advanced degrees at the best universities in China and abroad. They’re winning tenure-track academic positions and conducting important research around the globe. They’re serving as leaders in the rapid growth of Uyghur-run companies making products for Uyghurs, an exciting development taking place in present-day Xinjiang. And they are, of course, writing excellent literature and making beautiful, skillful, soulful (mungluq) music.
Still, though, the most famous “culture producers,” the ones who get the most airtime both in Xinjiang and abroad, whose work is being translated and/or written about and whom the average Westerner who knows a bit about Uyghurs is likely to know best, are virtually all men. And so, in celebration of International Women’s Day, and motivated by a conviction that far too many Uyghur women have been “buried” (kömülüp qalghan) on stages dominated by men, I want to introduce to you a few of what I think are the best, brightest, and most influential female musicians in Uyghur society, from across the spectrum of the often overlapping pop, folk, and classical repertoires.
Adile Sidiq ئادىلە سىدىق
Singer-songwriter Adile Sidiq was born and raised in Ürümchi, where she still lives. She is a graduate of Xinjiang University, where she became infamous in the early 2000s for her rendition of “Titanik Naxshisi” (The Titanic song, or “My Heart Will Go On”). Adile recalls regularly dismaying her parents by listening to “European-style music” throughout her adolescence, a practice which instilled in her a sensibility for writing diva ballads in adulthood. She is currently a coach on the second season of Yipäk Yoli Sadasi (The Voice of the Silk Road).
Here’s Adile’s hour-long appearance on a 2015 episode of Men Neq Meydanda (I’m live):
And here is “Nefise,” one of Adile’s most beloved tunes, a tribute to the female historical figure and culture hero Amannisa Khan, whose pen-name was Nefise:
Ayshigül Muhemmed ئايشىگۈل مۇھەممەد
Ayshigül Muhemmed, native of Shiho County, in Northern Xinjiang, is a performer and educator in the folk and classical muqam styles. She has advanced degrees in folksong performance from the Uzbek State Conservatory in Tashkent, and today enjoys a reputation as the most beloved of all instructors in the muqam program at the Xinjiang Arts Institute in Ürümchi. Well-known for her deep voice and commanding stage presence, she has released several albums in Xinjiang, as well as “Ayshemgul Memet: The Female Voice of the Uyghur Muqams and Folk Songs” (Amazon, iTunes). She has performed widely in China, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Germany, France, Taiwan, Dubai and the United States, among other places.
Here is her rendition of a dastan song from Ghérip-Senem, part of the Twelve Muqams repertoire, at a performance in Tashkent:
Here is one of Ayshigül’s performances of selections from the Chäbbiyat muqam suite at the International Mugam Festival in Azerbaijan. She is accompanied by Mijit Yunus and Abdukérim Osman, also professors at the Xinjiang Arts Institute, on tämbur and satar, respectively:
Berna Enwer بەرنا ئەنۋەر
By far the youngest singer on this list, little Berna Enwer (she is usually known simply by “Berna”) has made a name for herself as a voice of contemporary Uyghur children. She currently attends elementary school in her hometown of Ürümchi, takes voice lessons at the Xinjiang Arts Institute in her spare time, and maintains an active, busy performance and recording schedule throughout the entire autonomous region. Edited to add: Berna is particularly active as a performer for charity events such as this one in 2014. Reports state that her 2015 “Chim Chim Berna” Concert raised 71,324 RMB, all of which was donated to the families of students in need. Berna—with the help of her parents, who manage her—has managed to carve out a space that no other young singer, male or female, has in the Uyghur music industry.
One of her most recent songs is “Raka Raka Dum” (raka and dum are names of beats), a rather fun, mini-sized celebration of Uyghur culture and hospitality:
She has also released a Uyghur-language cover of an old bilingual (Uzbek-Russian) rendition of the folksong “Namangandi olmasi” (The apples of Namagan):
Dilber Yunus دىلبەر يۇنۇس
Dilber Yunus, a Kashgar native, is a world-renowned soprano based out of Finland. Today she still travels regularly to Xinjiang, where she appears in operas and musicals such as the 2014 “A Love Story in the Tianshan Mountains.” Dilber’s repertoire includes a number of Uyghur songs from folk and other repertoires performed in operatic and art song style, as well as Western opera and art song.
Here is one performance of her beloved take on “Bir Piyale Mey” (A teacup of wine):
And her rendition of “Ave Maria,” sung in an effortless way that belies just how difficult the song actually is to sing well:
Gülmire Turghun گۈلمىرە تۇرغۇن
Gülmire, born and raised in Aqsu, is a graduate of the dance program at the Xinjiang Arts Institute in Ürümchi. In recent years she has made a name for herself as a “new-style” pop star for Uyghurs, and manages to exude what I like to think of as a “bad-girl” image that still remains well within the bounds of feminine propriety. She invokes the image of someone not unlike a Uyghur Britney Spears, what with the synthesizers, auto-tune, dancing, and tight clothing.
Here’s a bit of that “bad girl” ethos I mentioned in “Qoghlashma” (Don’t come after me):
For something quite a bit different in visuals, if not in vocals, here’s “Élipbe” (Alphabet), a song about learning the Uyghur-language alphabet featuring both Gulmire and Berna (see The Art of Life in Chinese Central Asia for a discussion of this song):
Stay tuned for Part 2, coming March 10. More reflections on the roles of women and women musicians in Uyghur society, and introductions to the music of Izzet Ilyas, Nurnisa Abbas, Pasha Ishan, Peride Mamut, Senuber Tursun, and Zulpiye Küresh!
A note on transliteration: I have transliterated personal names and words from Uyghur using the system outlined in ULY (Uyghur Latin Yéziqi, or Uyghur Latin Script). There is a remarkable inconsistency in the transliteration of Uyghur into Latin script, and so be aware that there are many possible spellings of all these names and words.